One of the state’s highest-ranking education officials last month said it bugged him that parents shopping around for the right school have fewer options than when deciding "where they buy bread and toothpaste."
But while parents have some choices on where to send their children to school, evaluating the difference between educational outcomes in one building versus another is not as easy as it sounds.
There is no shortage of data on school performance, graduation rates and classroom sizes, but the mounds of information can be intimidating for parents who simply want to make sure they’re making the right choice.
“Unless you really know what you’re looking at, it may not make a lot of sense for a parent,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association, which encourages parents to shop around for schools.
Parents with students in Metro Nashville Public Schools are now free to move their child from their zoned public school to another one with open seats, according to school officials. (Parents still have to apply to the school; some have academic requirements and there is still a computerized random selection process — see "Open enrollment" below.)
The system isn’t brand-new to MNPS, but school officials hope to attract more attention to the program this year.
Between weighing their public schools options and evaluating private schools or the growing number of charter schools, there is a lot of data to wade through. Even more confusing is where to turn for reliable information about schools and student performance.
Here’s how to cut through the clutter:
Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System
Education officials say this number is the most important piece of data when judging a school.
Instead of test scores, Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System numbers show how much students at public schools have improved academically from one year to the next. Scored generally on a scale from 2 to minus-2, this number will show how well a school is able to advance student learning from one year to the next or whether the school simply keeps students unchallenged.
A school that scores high on state tests but earns low TVAAS numbers “may not be the best environment for your child because they’re not aggressively pushing the football down the field,” Throckmorton said.
Some TVAAS scores are available on the state’s Department of Education website , but the state is in the midst of building a web portal to better share that data. The new site is set to launch in November, according to state officials.
Achievement test scores
After reviewing how much students are learning one year compared to the last, the next best trove of information to mine is student test scores, said Chris Barbic, superintendent of the state’s Achievement School District, a wing of the state Department of Education charged with turning around failing schools.
Tennessee students are tested annually under the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, known as the TCAP. Third- through eighth-graders take the Achievement Test, while high school students take the End of Course exams, known as the EOC. High school juniors also take the ACT, which grades students from 1 to 36.
In middle school, pair up the value-added data with student test scores, he said. For high schools, compare test scores with graduation rates.
“You see these schools where you have 85 percent of kids are graduating, but the ACT score is 18,” he said, adding that unimpressive ACT scores show that students are skirting by.
Test data on the state’s more than 1,700 public and charter schools is available on the Department of Education Report Card , which is released on the department’s website each fall. The information gives a snapshot of how students performed on TCAP test subjects like math, reading, social studies and science in third through eighth grades. In high school, students are tested on biology, U.S. history, English and algebra. Writing exams are sprinkled in for students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades.
“There’s a ton of information, but for a parent to sit down and sift through that information, that would take a long time and need a background in math,” said Zach Rossley, the state department’s deputy assistant commissioner of data and communications.
Don’t expect the state to grade the schools, or make it easy to pull up comparisons, a spokeswoman said. At least not this year.
“We don’t rank schools. That’s something to keep in mind,” said Kelli Gauthier, a Department of Education spokeswoman, who said the state plans to give the report a “face-lift” next year to include “grades” for each school.
Some third-party websites take a stab at grading schools, such as greatschools.org . Each school is given a score from 1 to 10, with the best performing schools sporting the highest number. Scores on the site are tallied up based on test results, according to the nonprofit. But in addition to scores, the site also features public comments about the tone of the administration, recent awards or other factors that get overlooked when digging through a sea of numbers.
Beyond the data
Some experts argue that parents should think long and hard before pulling their student out of one school and plopping them into another, including Jerry Winters, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state.
“Student achievement data has its place, and you can’t ignore that. But I don’t think you could build a school’s reputation totally around test scores,” he said, adding he’d like to see good students with strong parental support help build up all schools.
Parents who are considering a switch should know how much support the school is getting from parents and the community, along with how much funding it receives from local and state government and how welcoming the school is to parents, Winters said.
“I think to just look at statistics can sometimes lead to a very uninformed position on the part of parents,” he added.
The president of a charter-school friendly national education reform group that typically disagrees with teachers unions agrees with Winters on that point.
“None of what’s out there is perfect, but a little bit of digging and a little bit of common sense is critical,” she said, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform based in Washington, D.C.
Parents should visit any school they want to send their child to and “trust their instincts,” Allen added.
“Those numbers, I think, should help a parent understand the quality of the schools they’re looking at and confirm their decisions,” she said.
Parents curious what other nearby public schools have to offer now have a new tool to comparison shop.
Metro Nashville Public Schools has launched a website where parents can search for schools by location, extra curricular activities, and even factors like before-and-after care.
“It’s kind of like shopping for a car,” said Noelle Mashburn, an MNPS spokeswoman.
Parents can also narrow down their selections by clicking on subject areas their students are keenly interested in, like visual arts, hospitality and health sciences.
The site — gis.mnps.org/sas_so  — also walks parents through the Optional School Application and allows them to apply online to as many as seven of the 70 listed schools, ranking them in order of preference.